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The Mitchell Paradox - Part III: Octagon Blues

Previously: David Mitchell blossoms at NorCal Fighting Alliance. He puts together an 11-0 run on the local scene, becoming a champion at Tachi Palace. His success leads to an offer from the UFC. However, all is not well, fighting and training is beginning to take a toll on his head.

Artwork by Chad Stanhope

For his UFC debut, at 2010’s UFC Fight Night 22: Marquardt vs. Palhares in Austin, TX, David Mitchell was matched-up against another newcomer; one who’d found the Octagon after a brutal path through the Bible Belt.

Anthony Waldburger Jr., TJ to friends and fans alike, had won most of his early fights just like David had—with a tapout and barely a scratch to show for it. However, unlike David – who was menaced by adversity outside of the cage, but rarely inside of it – Waldburger knew how it felt to lose.

Waldburger had been defeated five times before joining ZUFFA. Four of those losses were due to strikes, including a 2002 battering at the hands of Josh Neer.

I asked David about his preparation for the fight. His response reminded me that not all of my questions would have a clear answer.

“I don’t think I changed up too much. I think I stayed there in Santa Rosa. But, to be perfectly honest, dude, it’s not something I thought about in a long ass time. I can’t honestly remember. Like, that was so many training camps ago and so many concussions ago. I guess I trained the best I could. But, I’ve had a couple of training camps like that—where you kind of know you’re going to lose from the get go and you’re not really in it to win it. So, I couldn’t be sure where I was at that point. My recollection is pretty foggy there.”

For the fight itself, we have more than David’s clouded recollections to go on. Unlike the memories in a fighter’s brain, footage on UFC Fight Pass doesn’t degrade with every hit.

Waldburger was a riddle David couldn’t solve. He threw Terrell’s entire bag of tricks at the kid; hunting for leg locks and gogoplatas, but – unlike the cans in Ukiah – Waldburger knew how to defend a shin across his throat and didn’t panic when his leg bent backwards.

Graphic by Chad Stanhope

Waldburger defended everything David tried. Additionally, the Texan was able to respond in kind, hitting David with armbar and choke attempts that would have ended most other fights. When David got tired, Waldburger slammed him with punches and elbows. Those erased the smile David had worn since the first round, leaving his demeanor pallid and detached.

In the third round David’s solemn face was smeared in blood from a cut on the bridge of his nose. A win seemed out of reach by then, but David continued to look for submissions. Each attempt seemed to land him in a more dangerous position. This was the fighting style of a man used to putting himself in bad situations.

30-27, 30-27, 30-27. When the scores were read, David pointed to the man that beat him. He offered Waldburger his hand to shake, and then left the cage. He did all of this without looking up.

On the way out, matchmaker Joe Silva screeched, “That was impressive! I’m going to give you another shot!” and told David that he’d set a record for submission attempts. David didn’t care. He barely knew where he was.

He stumbled through the curtain to the medical check-in point. A doctor laid him on a table and put a stitch in the wound across his nose. The doctor attended David with all the care of a pit crew, changing a tire before pushing a machine back out onto the track. David needed more, but he couldn’t find the words to express this.

“I was fucking weary, I was messed up. I felt like I had to go home, but they were like, ‘Ok later.’ I guess they were kind of used to that, because what are they gonna do? I remember thinking, ‘That’s it? Like, I’m not OK.’

Woozy, frightened and irritated by the little stitch used to cover up his problems, David moved on from the medical tent. “I could hardly walk. I could hardly stand. What I did next was truly tragic, and probably the reason why I got so fucked up eventually.”

After leaving the Frank Erwin Center David made a bee line for Austin’s party district. He was with a cadre of friends and sponsors who had traveled south to watch the fight. David believed they came with expectations that their 11-0 stud would roll over another chump.

Hoping to cut off any feelings of disappointment from his entourage, David pounded back alcohol, sure this would equal a good time for everyone—just as it did back at Tachi Palace.

In the the neon glow of Sixth Street, he drank until he could no longer feel the slice on his nose or the ringing in his ears. “I think once I got drunk I got a little euphoria. And I met some girl, and it was all kind of OK. I think I just tried to make it OK.”

He woke up in a stranger’s bed with a swollen face and a head full of pain. There was blood on the sheets. The patch-up job on his nose hadn’t made it through the night. He left Texas soon after, with a headache, an L, and a check for $3,000.

“To walk away with a check like that, some pathetic amount? Fighting in the UFC, at the top level? Losing—it was fucking devastating, and I got super depressed.”

When David got back to California, the hangover and immediate symptoms of concussion had subsided—but his depression stuck around. He said the depression was amplified because of the shame he felt walking back into NorCal Fighting Alliance.

“I wish I had gotten some tougher fights, maybe even some losses. So I was mentally prepared for it, and how hard it was to go back to the gym after being seen as a winner every time. MMA is the highest highs and lowest lows.”

UFC Fight Night Weigh-in
David Mitchell, right, faces off against TJ Waldburger before their UFC bout.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

After Austin, David started to skip training. “Whenever I get depressed, I can’t do a lot of stuff. Getting up in the morning becomes difficult. Getting to training becomes harder.”

During this period David was also suffering from a great deal of physical pain. He’d hurt his shoulder somehow, and it had gotten so bad he could barely hold a phone to his ear. When he was able to face the gym, he tried to ignore it. But, throwing a simple jab soon became out of the question. Whatever was causing this pain, it was getting worse. He had to stop training altogether. “I was pretty much over it,” recalled David. “So I went to Southeast Asia.”

Throughout his life, when David feels at his lowest – when stress builds and collides with traumas past and present – the same thing usually happens: he bolts. It happened a few times during our interviews. Whenever something especially painful bubbled up from his past, David wouldn’t spare me, even when it hurt to talk. Every time he exposed himself like this, he felt a little more vulnerable. The past became a little more real, more present.

Without warning, sometimes these feelings would reach a limit within David, and alarm bells would start to ring. After that happened he’d try to outrun them. And that would take him to seemingly random destinations, forcing him to cut contact with those closest to him.

When this happened with me, he’d miss appointments and wouldn’t answer messages. I would worry that the project was over, that either he or I had said something that we couldn’t come back from. Later, I would just worry about whether he was OK. He always returned, though. And did so with a frank account of why he disappeared, and where he’d been.

After hitting the wall that was his UFC debut, David chose Indonesia, Thailand, and maybe some other places he’s forgotten; destinations where he could escape the alarm bells ringing in his head.

Alone, but surrounded by strangers, David tried to forgot his life in Northern California and anything related to MMA. To help him forget he indulged in whatever he could find: alcohol, drugs, women. On the other side of the world those alarm bells faded, enough to let him think. But, not enough that he couldn’t hear them when it was just him, on the beach at night, staring out over an endless tract of inky ocean water. Still, it was a different kind of ringing that made him come home.

“My manager called me. I was in Bali, and he said, ‘Hey, four months, Paulo Thiago, Brazil.’ I hadn’t trained, I was really having a hard time. And he was like, ‘Man do you want to be dropped by the UFC, or do you want to try and make something of it?’”

Begrudgingly David took the fight and returned to the U.S. He couldn’t provide the exact reason why he was convinced to come back. Perhaps the idea of being cut from the UFC after one fight would only add to the feelings of failure that were strangling him after the defeat to Waldburger.

“I just knuckled up and did it,” said David of his training camp. “I just put one foot in front of the other.”

David came into camp heavy. Very heavy. His training was limited thanks to the ever-increasing pain in his shoulder and now neck. At this time David was still making plenty of money from his weed farm, so he had cash to spend on searching for a diagnosis. He reckons he spent around $50,000 during camp, a large portion going towards medical appointments. But despite the investment, no one could tell him what was wrong.

“I remember being pretty scared, just because I wasn’t confident with what was going on. And because I was in so much pain,” remembered David. “I had so much dysfunction and weakness. I couldn’t really throw two jabs without my left just getting heavy and tired. If I got bumped on the head, my whole universe would turn inside out.

“I’d get hit—they’d hit me really soft. The pain in the neck? I was jumping around, writhing. I had no strength. It was like being in one of those handicapped training camps—which I’ve seen lots of fighters do—where you’re working around something. Later it was my head, but this time it was my arm and my neck. I couldn’t really do much; I couldn’t grapple or anything. So I just boxed and ran, and got in decent shape.”

David traveled to Rio de Janeiro, the site of UFC 134, still 30 pounds over the welterweight limit. “That weight cut was ridiculous,” snarled David. “I should have never fought in that weight class to begin with, but that’s what we did. It was really super scary sometimes. I did some ridiculous things. I don’t even want to think about what I did, as far as spending hours in the sauna—and not drinking water or eating food for days.”

After punishing his body, David made the weight. His fight with Thiago was on.

Thiago won the fight with scores of 30-27 across the board. David started the fight like he did against Waldburger, with a Joker’s grin on his face. In this contest, though—thanks to Thiago’s inability to hurt David like the Texan did—the smile lasted deep into the third. Fighting around his injury meant David spent most the bout striking with his Brazilian opponent. Whenever ‘Caveira’ took him down, David resorted to what he knew best—and was able to stifle his opponent with jiu jitsu. When the scores were read, David held his head high. The loss hurt, but not as much as the last one.

“I fought my ass off,” said David. “I think the feeling I took away from that was, ‘Damn, I would have won that fight if I was in halfway decent shape. I’m better than that guy and I should have won.’ But that’s obviously not the case because... he was the better man that day. But that was the disappointment I took away from it. Like, ‘That guy ain’t no black belt, I could have put him away!’ But I just didn’t have it. Even with the injuries and everything else, it was still a fight I could have won.”

The aftermath of David’s second UFC fight was nothing like what happened back in Austin. There was no wild partying in Rio. “There was nothing to celebrate and there was no one to celebrate with. I didn’t go anywhere, and the people I was with were scared of traveling. They didn’t want to go out. They were afraid they would get kidnapped or something. We stayed in the hotel. We didn’t do shit.”

David remembers flying home with a check for $2,500. About a quarter of that money had already been spent on hotels and flights for his corner people. David did receive something valuable from the fight, though—a sympathetic ear from the UFC regarding his neck and shoulder issues.

“They were like, ‘OK there’s something wrong with this guy, we’re going to get it fixed.’”

The UFC sent David for an MRI and then a meeting with a surgeon. David remembers sitting in a medical office being shown a scan of his neck. He didn’t know what he was looking at. Neither did the surgeon.

The image looked like it had a smudge on it. The surgeon told David that they should be looking at a clear visual of the nerve within his neck. Something was obviously wrong, but the surgeon would have to open David up and figure out what it was from the inside.

After David went under the knife, he finally got some answers. “When I got the surgery? First of all, what the doctor told me was, ‘Man, your shit was completely messed up.’”

David had been living with an eighty-percent impinged nerve in his neck. This was the result of a damaged spine. From the surgeon, David learned that his spine was badly degenerated and congenitally fused in a few places. Four of his cervical vertebrae (the vertebrae that exist just below the skull) were described as being like ‘a set of three Walmart tires working alongside a spare.’ This condition had promoted the growth of bone spurs in one of the vertebrae. Over years the spurs had ground against his nerves, interrupting and then almost blocking the signal relay from his brain to his forearms, hand and fingers. The brain’s response to a blockage like this is to cause terrible pain.

“It was just a bad congenital condition and it probably doesn’t help when you’re getting in car accidents, fighting in MMA, and all the dumb stuff that I did. It just kind of added up and degenerated more and more.”

David had the spurs surgically removed from his neck. Afterward, he was warned that this was just a temporary measure. The surgeon, who was unsure over what kind of nerve recovery David could expect, stressed that there was no way this part of his body would fully heal. The surgeon also urged David to create a new game-plan for his future, one without fighting.

David wasn’t about to quit fighting, though. After surgery he felt fantastic. “It was immediately apparent how much better I was. I wasn’t having the crazy pain. I wasn’t having trouble lifting groceries into the trunk of a car. Just simple every day things became a lot easier. Of course when I got into the gym it was a lot easier to get into and enjoy the training.”

David figures the surgery cost around $100,000. Even with his successful weed op, that wasn’t the kind of cost he could manage at the time. Fortunately for him, the UFC took care of it. “That’s about the only decent thing my manager did for me—getting the UFC to pay for the surgery,” said David, bitterly. “But that’s a whole other story.”

In November, 2011—14 months after his fight with Thiago—David was booked to face Hyu Gyu Lim at UFC on FUEL TV 6, in Macau, China. But that fight was called off after Lim passed out in the fighter hotel’s sauna. David actually witnessed the incident, and had to call security to get Lim medical attention. David would have to wait another two months to step back into the Octagon.

David’s next fight came at UFC on FOX 6 in Chicago, in January of 2013. In retrospect, it’s shocking that David made it to the cage that day. Unlike last time, however, it wasn’t an injury, his conditioning, or mindset that threatened the fight. This time it was the law.

In the next installment of The Mitchell Paradox David loses everything.

The Mitchell Paradox - Part IV: Busted will be released next Tuesday, only on Bloody Elbow.

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